Hollywood should stick to acting, not activism

Posted: Mar 07, 2003 12:00 AM

Martin Sheen, the left-wing star of NBC's "West Wing," complained that network execs were angry with him for taking a vocal stance against a possible war with Iraq. And, sure enough, within a couple of days all of Hollywood was up in arms.

"All Americans, whether we are actors, writers, doctors, accountants, farmers or members of our armed services, share fundamental liberties," declared the West Coast branch of the Writer's Guild on March 3. "One of those is the right to speak out … on the issues of the day. Today in America, the most significant issue of concern is whether we will enter into a full-scale war against Iraq."

Now, I agree with that. But there's a reason why you haven't seen America's leading accountants on "Nightline" or "Crossfire" to debate the war; few people care what they have to say. And this is unfair. After all, accountants have to be smart to be successful. Actors, who are booked on many of these news shows, have to pretend to be smart.

This highlights the central problem when discussing Hollywood activism: We shouldn't be discussing it in the first place. But because East Coast news producers fall for the celebrity bait every time, these intellectually insecure performers have an influence vastly disproportionate to anything they've earned.

Which leads us to the latest Hollywood hysteria about what it calls "McCarythism." Various Hollywood unions including the Screen Actors Guild and the Writer's Guild have issued statements this week condemning the specter of "witch hunts" against vocal opponents of a war with Iraq.

"Some have recently suggested that well-known individuals who express `unacceptable' views should be punished by losing their right to work," said SAG's statement. "This shocking development suggests that the lessons of history have, for some, fallen on deaf ears."

The statement goes on to invoke the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the blacklist and the rest. "During this shameful period, our own industry prostrated itself before smear campaigns and witch hunters rather than standing on the principles articulated in the nation's fundamental documents."

Now, there are a lot of stolen bases in Hollywood's version of history. Hollywood's martyr-mythology leaves out the fact that the famed Hollywood Ten, for example, were in fact members of the Communist Party, which advocated the violent overthrow of the U.S. government in violation of the Smith Act and which took orders directly from Moscow. But it's also true that the McCarthy hearings went too far, and some innocent people were unfairly punished along with some guilty people who were fairly punished.

Indeed, the outbursts from the Hollywood unions are perfect examples of why we shouldn't take Hollywood too seriously when it comes to matters of politics and policy. The SAG statement includes this table-thumper: "With a painfully clear appreciation of history, we deplore the idea that those in the public eye should suffer professionally for having the courage to give voice to their views."

But why? What would be wrong with Sheen getting in trouble with NBC for taking an unpopular position? NBC, last time I checked, is still a business and not a branch of the U.S. government. Hollywood activists have such an inflated sense of their own importance they think any hindrance of their own prattle is the equivalent of censorship or cracking down on dissent.

This is absurd. I guarantee you that if I wrote a column defending the North American Man-Boy Love Association, I would "suffer professionally" for having the "courage to give voice to my views."

If an accountant were to take to the airwaves denouncing -or supporting -a war with Iraq, it'd be entirely

reasonable to expect that some of his clients might take their business elsewhere.

Why are Hollywood stars exempt from social pressure? Indeed, Hollywood activists would be the first to harass a company that advocated discrimination against gays or wife-beating. Would that make them McCarythites? I've met many conservatives in Hollywood and New York who are terrified of being "outed" for their views. I await the SAG statement on their plight.

Free speech and free association are two-way streets. If you want to say America is an evil cesspool, you have every right to do so. If I want to say -with my words or dollars -that you are unpatriotic swine, that's my free speech, too

The SAG crowd wants it both ways. They smugly celebrate their own "courage" for speaking out, while at the same time they denounce the notion that there should be consequences for their "courage." Well, courage requires risk to be called courage. I'm sure accountants are smart enough to understand that.